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using a genetically engineered virus that serves as a template to grow a chemical catalyst, which can turn natural gas into ethylene. It’s designed to work by altering surface areas on the methane in such a way that the conversion reaction can be performed at lower temperatures. Tkachenko and Erik Scher—Siluria’s vice president of R&D—apparently told the Times they call this a “hairball,” although they didn’t use that term on my visit.
The company got started in 2008, as Tkachenko and the investors started going through the scientific papers and trying to figure out the best early applications of this process. They settled on using methane as the raw material of choice, because it’s relatively cheap, clean, and abundant, and comes from domestic sources, Tkachenko says. The raw material, known as feedstock, should be about 40 to 70 percent cheaper than oil over time, he says. There’s also an energy security angle here, since there’s thought to be about 300 years worth of natural gas supplies from domestic sources, compared with about eight years of oil from domestic sources, Tkachenko says.
Although the Siluria team achieved some important early proof of their concept last year, it’s not yet ready to declare victory over the likes of Dow Chemical or anybody else that has thought about cleaner, cheaper ways to make ethylene. The team of chemists at Siluria are running many experiments to tweak one variable here, another variable there, in the process to see if they can come up with something that’s truly optimal in terms of cost-effectiveness, Scher says. Once they have that nailed, then there is the small matter of finding the major chemical partners it will need to commercialize such a process, which surely will take a lot of resources.
“We’re not going to do this alone,” Tkachenko says.
Maybe it was just a little bit of Friday afternoon goofiness after another hard week in the lab—I had the bright idea of meeting these guys at 4 pm—but they seemed to be having more fun than the average entrepreneur I talk with every day. They razzed each other about one being the biologist (Tkachenko) and the other being a chemist (Scher), and how they don’t understand each other. Tkachenko, more than once, poked fun at himself for being part of the company’s administration, calling himself “useless overhead.” Before I left, frankly with my head spinning a bit about exothermic and endothermic reactions, I asked these guys if they are having fun.
Scher didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, we are.”
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